Times Literary Supplement: V.S. Naipaul, J.M. Barrie and More
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: a critical look at V.S. Naipaul’s all-too revealing book on Africa, J.M. Barrie’s cricket team of literary all-stars, and the Hoxne treasure trove explained.
V. S. Naipaul: A Misanthrope Abroad
V.S. Naipaul's new book, The Masque of Africa, has not been well received by critics. In the TLS this week, the novelist William Boyd compares it to Evelyn Waugh's A Tourist in Africa (1960)—a book that “even the most fervent Waugh admirers consider his laziest and worst.” Boyd notes, however, that “there is a new problem for avid readers of Naipaul—an inescapable one.” Since the publication of Patrick French’s “astonishing and extraordinary authorized biography of Naipaul, The World Is What it Is (2008),” all of Naipaul’s work must now be read through the filter of the revelations that French detailed. “We know too much about V. S. Naipaul, now: Naipaul’s work—past, present and future—is irrevocably transformed by the ‘French Effect’.”
For The Masque of Africa Naipaul sets off, ostensibly alone, with an intellectual agenda of sorts, to a country or several countries. He begins to meet people, quizzing them, transcribing the answers to his questions. Simultaneously, his own reactions to the places and people he meets are recorded with unflinching honesty. A corrosive disdain and darkest prognostications inevitably ensue. But thanks to French (and thanks to Naipaul himself who authorized and assisted in the biography) “we now know that on his journey he usually isn’t alone, that he travels as comfortably as possible with his wife or a female companion, that he enlists local contacts—usually journalists—to do much of the footwork and round up ‘interesting people’ for him to query and analyze.”
Uganda is the first of six African countries he visits, followed by Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gabon, and finally South Africa. “The book is filled with visits to shrines, tombs and sacred places of chthonic portent as Naipaul moves from country to country. He attends rituals and ceremonies; he interrogates fetish priests, diviners, soothsayers and witch doctors; he asks an assortment of people—from wealthy entrepreneurs to his guides and drivers—what old pagan beliefs still play a part in their modern African lives. True to form, runs the story of V. S. Naipaul, the increasingly disenchanted traveller. ‘Garbage’ is possibly the most overused word in the book. Naipaul sees garbage everywhere—even the rare absence of garbage impresses. “On one page the word is used four times in six lines, and on another he sounds almost like J. G. Ballard: ‘Hidden from the cathedral and its gardens were moraines of garbage that lay in all the streets of the town. Africa reclaiming its own.’ Exasperation and weary derision become the standard tones he employs.” This is the Naipaulian mask, Boyd concludes, and “in the past this brazen refusal to self-censor added to his books’ powerful frisson and bleak insight. But things have gone awry in Masque: it’s not just that Naipaul’s sneer and dismay are tiresomely permanent but the writing suffers as a consequence in a most unfamiliar manner.”
Literary Cricket All-Stars
The author of Peter Pan was an improbable captain of a cricket team, writes Stephen Fay, reviewing Kevin Telfer's quintessentially English study of sporting literature. J. M. Barrie was “a diminutive Scot, he was rather awkward in movement and not remotely athletic.” What he liked doing best was eating and drinking, smoking, and talking with his men friends, and cricket seemed to him to provide the perfect way of extending this pleasure to the countryside at weekends. Kevin Telfer, author of Peter Pan's First XI concedes that Barrie has remained on the very periphery of the annals of cricket, just as he has come to take a place on the periphery of literature. But its performances are recorded for posterity in the Allahakbarries’ scorebook, which has found its way into the MCC archive at Lord’s, the international home and shrine of the game.
Barrie called his team the Allahakbarries because, when he asked an explorer friend the African for “Heaven Help Us,” he claims the friend told him it was “Allah Akbar.” The addition of “ries” made this an even finer piece of whimsy. Jerome K. Jerome and Arthur Conan Doyle were early recruits, along with E. W. Hornung, the creator of Raffles, the gentleman thief, P. G. Wodehouse, and A. A. Milne. What the writers had in common, besides their delight in cricket, was a remarkable knack for creating memorable characters—Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, and Winnie-the-Pooh. Telfer regrets that, by the 1920s, Barrie, Conan Doyle and Milne (though not Wodehouse) were regarded not merely as old-fashioned but as utterly irrelevant. That judgment was somewhat premature. Although they might not engage the best minds in university English departments, these Allahakbarries are still among the most popular writers in the English language. Most of them, Fay notes, were hopeless cricketers.
The Hoxne Treasure
One of the most extraordinary discoveries in Britain in the past 20 years is the collection of late Roman gold and silver known as the Hoxne Treasure, found in a Suffolk field in 1992 by a man with a metal detector who was looking for his friend’s hammer. Kenneth Lapatin this week in the TLS traces our changing attitudes to the very word “treasure” while reviewing the British Museum’s newly published account of the massive hoard of coins, condiment-holders, jewelery and toothpicks once carefully stored by a wealthy family in the years before Roman power faded and fell. Among routine inscriptions of Christian piety is the hope that the recipient of a “stunningly pierced gold bracelet” may “use it and be happy.” We may even know the owners’ names—although one of them at least seems to have been very strangely spelt. The “friend’s hammer” has not been discarded. It is displayed in the museum as a significant part of the discovery, its context, something from a later time that illuminates the meaning of what came before. Such application of “reception theory” is not popular with all visitors. Although the central “battle to establish reception as a legitimate, indeed essential, part of Classics has long been won,” there are constant skirmishes about what is truly relevant and useful and what is merely fashion.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.